The recent US-NATO negotiations with Central Asian states and Russia to establish new supply routes to Afghanistan underscore the profound connections between Afghanistan and Central Asia, and the immense repercussions of the Afghan war for the latter. US intentions aren't surprising, given the intensifying Taliban attacks on the supply route via the Khyber Pass. Clearly the Taliban and its allies have learned from Iraq that long and vulnerable supply lines are the Achilles heel of the US military.
Even before the revelation of the negotiations with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, NATO was asking Russia to revise an earlier agreement covering the shipment of non-lethal cargoes via rail through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. Pentagon planners were asking their Russian counterparts to permit air transport as well.
Keeping Islamic militants in Afghanistan in check is in Moscow's interests, and there are signs that the Kremlin is willing to assume a role in Afghanistan that goes beyond that of logistical support provider. To help put Moscow in a more cooperative mood, Washington appears to have made a commitment that it will step up anti-narcotics initiatives, aiming to contain the flow of drugs that is moving into Central Asia and Russia. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stressed during her recent confirmation hearing, Afghanistan will be US President Barack Obama's "highest priority," and his team is clearly considering a broader, multidimensional effort to reverse the current unfavorable trends for the US and NATO there.
The opening of a Central Asian route is in part connected with American plans to send 32,000 more troops and more equipment to Afghanistan in 2009. This virtual doubling of the US military footprint in Afghanistan will entail a commensurate increase in food, fuel and construction materials.
A Central Asian supply network fits in with US policy in numerous ways. The plan is to buy a considerable amount of supplies locally from Central Asian countries that, as suppliers and transit states, stand to make considerable amounts of money. While other supplies could be airlifted, heavy construction equipment and fuel would be sent by rail to Central Asia and then trucked into Afghanistan.
To reassure Central Asian leaders wary of a US attempt to secure new bases in the region, American military planners have assured them, and, presumably, the Kremlin as well, that Washington is not interested in new facilities, and that the United States seeks to use the Central Asian route solely to ship non-lethal supplies.
As a severe economic crisis deepens in the region, it is perfectly understandable why Central Asian leaders would welcome a mammoth construction project that will bring large amounts of US dollars into their countries, build valuable infrastructure that would outlast the war, and also create a non-threatening US economic and political presence that they could then use to balance other great powers. Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, for example, is a past master at playing that game. Likewise, Tajikistan, which is already close to being a failing state, is desperate for foreign assistance and has frequently made that clear publicly. A secondary and unarticulated motive for Washington to open a Central Asian supply route is a desire to prevent Tajikistan's implosion -- a wholly worthwhile aim since the United States cannot afford to allow a Central Asian state to fail. Such a development could increase the difficulties of stabilizing Afghanistan and heighten the US-Russian geopolitical rivalry.
In placing a big bet on Central Asia, the United States is assuming that Russia shares a common interest in defeating the Taliban. While this is generally true, the intensity of Moscow's commitment can be questioned. The old thinking -- in which an enemy of my enemy is my friend - still seems to linger among some in the Kremlin. Indeed, Russia's coping strategy seems to diverge markedly from that being pursued by the United States and its NATO allies. In keeping with its traditional policy of communicating with all parties in Afghanistan, Moscow has frequently been reported as acting on its own to establish a lasting and independent position of interest in Afghanistan. Thus, there are many signs of a renewed Russian desire to create some sort of sphere of influence over at least part of Afghanistan, in order to neutralize what Moscow fears might be a forthcoming Taliban victory. Russia has never been wiling to contribute its forces to the conflict, perhaps out of concern for memories of the Soviet invasion of 1979, but also because it does not have the capability to do so. Nevertheless, the Kremlin does exhibit a desire to harvest the fruits of war, if it can do so cheaply
Russia has the capability to exact a steep price for its cooperation, and it seems fairly certain that the Kremlin will strive to do just that. One area in which it will likely try to exact that price is in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, specifically in seeking NATO assurances that Georgia and Ukraine will not be offered membership in the alliance for the foreseeable future, if ever. It is a mark of the strategic malpractice of past US policymakers in Central Asia and Afghanistan that Moscow now finds itself in position to potentially dictate conditions for participation in an endeavor that is clearly in Russia's best interests. The Kremlin should be the one begging the United States and NATO to open a Central Asian supply route. Instead, it is the United States that has to make concessions and offer incentives in order to defend the common interest.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.